International Rugby League remains to be a massive joke amongst sporting followers. The same can be said for many Rugby League followers. After the Grand Final victory from the Sydney Roosters, the long off-season started for many a fan. Barely anybody seemed to care that the United States (who had minimal top class experience) qualified for the quarter finals of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup on their debut appearance. There was a fair share of classics involved in what was a fantastic competition.
The 2017 edition will take place in Australia and New Zealand. Seven of the eight quarter-finalists (all but the aforementioned United States) have automatically qualified. This will see Australia, New Zealand, England, Fiji, France, Samoa and Scotland all but seeded for the competition. This has caused some confusion, with many arguments spilling out over some issues.
First and foremost, let me go through the remainder of the qualifying.
Europe - Three teams set to qualify from this region
Should easily qualify from Europe. The Azzuri had an outstanding season last year but should have qualified from their group. After warming up for the cup with a 15-14 victory over England, noted as one of Rugby League's biggest upsets, the Azzuri piled on the points with a 32-16 thrashing over co-hosts Wales. After being unable to hold onto a lead and eventually drawing against Scotland, they had to manage a victory over the winless Tongans. The Azzuri never got going in this game, losing 16-0. The side will drastically change with veterans Anthony Minichiello, Cameron Ciraldo and Mark Minichiello being unavailable for the first time in more than a decade. Up and coming stars Aidan Guerra and James Tedesco may be lost to Australian eligibility by then, but no doubt the growing crop of players coming through the Holden Cup year by year will have a fair share of heritage players available.
Once again, expecting them to easily qualify. Ireland were given a harsh draw in the World Cup last year, going down to Fiji 32-14 which all but sealed their fate. A 42-0 drubbing to England followed by a 50-0 loss to Australia finished up the story. It's a harsh difference from the last time the Irish toured in Australia for the 2008 World Cup. Back then, they stunned their way to the semi-final qualifier, going down to Fiji in an intense clash. Ireland have a fair group of Super League players ready to represent the Green jersey. Not only that, local players such as James Hasson and Apirana Pewhairangi have the heritage to continue Ireland's rise.
Formally a powerhouse of Rugby League, the Welsh were pushed to the lower pools in the World Cup. It all went horribly for them. Losing to the Cook Islands, the United States and Italy, Wales were a shadow of their former selves. Look up the 2000 World Cup semi-final, this team not that long back nearly went on-par with the conquering Australians. Whilst they don't have a squad to challenge many teams in the top tier of International Rugby League, still expecting them to qualify.
The only other European team to be in the World Cup mix for last year. The Serbians attempted to qualify for the cup, but failed. They suffered a 52-6 loss to Italy, following a 96-4 loss to Lebanon. They will get the closest, but expected to miss out.
The side had qualified for the World Cup previously, but missed out last year. News came through in July that the sport had been banned in Russia. The RLEF is still working on getting Rugby League reinstated in the country.
Asia-Pacific - Two teams set to qualify from this region
Despite having a number of quality representatives in the last two World Cups, they have failed to make any real momentum. The side managed to have big names everywhere except the halves. The side had close losses to Scotland and Cook Islands before having a convincing victory over Italy. Expected to qualify.
The side has slowly been growing over the last twenty years to get on par with the other four Pacific tier Rugby League nations. Players such as Dylan Napa, Brad Takairangi and Tupou Sopoaga are starting to make their mark in the NRL, but they will need plenty more before the next round of qualifying. With two spots between three quality teams, this could be the one to miss out.
Papua New Guinea had many a reason to complain before the 2008 World Cup, being given zero chance to qualify for the semi finals thanks to being pooled with Australia, New Zealand and England. This time however there was no excuse. Following a few years of turmoil with the Rugby League board of the country, the side produced average results in the tournament. If the decline continues over the next few years, as sad as it could be to think about, they may be the unlucky team from the Pacific to miss out on the next edition of the World Cup. For the only country who has Rugby League as their national sport to miss the World Cup, it could be a real wake up call to the board to finally get things right.
Americas - One team set to qualify from this region
People have been asking why the United States weren't granted automatic qualification. There are two reasons I can think of. First of all they are still not full RLIF members, a fact which desperately needs to be acknowledged. If South Africa and Serbia are still members, United States must be at least considered. Second of all, if they were to automatically qualify, there would be no point to an Americas qualification group with no positions available (I would doubt they would leave a European nation out just so Canada had a chance to qualify). After stunning the World Cup by making the quarter-finals, there is plenty a reason to be happy with the improvement of the Tomahawks after their own localised turmoil. Let's hope this continues.
Currently ranked 16th in the RLIF rankings, because they're so reliable (France are fourth and Wales are sixth, enough said). Canada have had some improving results against United States in recent years, but not expecting the side to qualify. They thrashed a weakened Tomahawks 52-14 recently.
Middle-East/Africa - One team set to qualify from this region
If the mid-2000s had any World Cups, this would be the minnow to watch. Constantly one-upping teams like France, Lebanon were fantastic to watch. They failed to qualify for the last two World Cups, despite not losing a single match in qualifying (last round draws to Ireland and Italy saw them miss out on differential). They have been given an amazing chance to finally right some wrongs by qualifying from a much easier group.
Not seen on the top flight since a disasterous World Cup campaign in 2000, they will be given the chance to qualify for the World Cup on home soil. They failed to qualify in the last campaign, going down 20-6 to Jamaica and 40-4 to the United States despite beating an ever improving Canada. Not expected to qualify.
Another team who could really rely on heritage players. It could make or break their potential campaign. Maybe some of the English stars will be past their prime by then and be allowed to represent a country that could excite some imaginations for the Cup. Not expecting to qualify, but could cause a surprise or two.
So that's where it stands. With current rankings (done on the first of August, 2014), this is who will most likely qualify. In my personal thought, thanks to the turmoil, I will have the Cook Islanders taking the second Pacific spot.
1. Australia (Automatic, hosts)
2. New Zealand (Automatic, hosts)
3. England (Automatic)
5. Fiji (Automatic)
7. Samoa (Automatic)
11. Scotland (Automatic)
15. Cook Islands
So what does this tell us? Aside from that rankings list making no sense at all? Seriously.
It tells us we need the extra two places.
For those who don't know how the World Cup will be played out, there will be four pools. Two big ones and two little ones. The two big ones will feature four teams, three of which will qualify for the quarter-finals. The two little ones will feature three teams with just one qualifying for the quarter-finals. My biggest problem was the inter-group matches. These matches counted into the table on the group. So you could have an easier inter-group match, hence an unfair draw, and still qualify.
That makes no sense to me. Thank goodness it didn't really affect the outcome last year (Scotland and United States both qualified and played each other in the inter-group match).
Why can't we bring two more nations to bridge this gap. Four teams in the lower pools, with still just the one qualifying for the quarter finals.
- More competition and a chance for more teams to get used to playing top level Rugby League
- Fairer draw with just the teams in each pool being counted against each other
- With potential new teams entering the Cup, they stay in pools which allow closer matches
So with that in mind, how would we use that extra space? For the first one I would give another to the Pacific group. This region has been the core of Rugby League for many a year. They all deserve to be there. The other one? I would take the runner-up from the Americas and Middle East/Africa group and play a two-legged match to decide the repechange qualifier. Imagine that! Jamaica and Canada playing off for a position in the Rugby League World Cup. Yes they would play in the lower pools, but this would be able to give them a chance at being competitive. Just ask the 2013 United States team, who were time and time again written off before their heroics took fruit.
Rugby League is still growing internationally. We need to stop ignoring it. We need to stop laughing at it. Scathing comments from journalists took the glamour out of the Cup last year. But it's still in the building stage. Only since the 1995 edition have minnow nations been able to qualify, and look at the changes:
1995 - South Africa debut with a 52-6 loss to Fiji, 86-6 loss to Australia and 46-0 loss to England. Fiji don't do much better after that, losing 46-0 to England and 66-0 to Australia. In the pool stage, England conceeded 16 points, all against Australia. Australia conceeded 26, with 20 of those againast England. The rest of the Cup had some lob sided scors, but nothing compared to this pool.
2000 - Australia conceeded just 14 points in their three-game pool, compared to 198 points scored. This included that all famous 110-4 victory over Russia. In thirty-one matches, eleven of them featured a side scoring fifty or more points. Both semi-finals and the Cup final had 40+ scores.
2008 - PNG copped a horrible pool with forty point losses to Australia and New Zealand. The lower pools were more than competitive with each team in Group B and Group C scoring one win and one loss each. Let's not get into those horribly unnessecary 9th-place and 7th-place playoff matches. In eighteen matches, only two matches featured a side scoring fifty or more points, both being eventual runner-up Australia. Ireland stunned the Cup to make it to fifth.
2013 - Even with some lopsided scorelines, the cup was more than competitive for every team involved. Four of twenty-eight games featured a side scoring fifty or more points. United States stunned the Cup to make the Quarter Finals.
Look at the first two examples. Then the next two. The improvement on the sport internationally is right there to be seen. Soon enough we can start to improve the local playing quality. With Vodafone sponsering the Fijian side, rumours of a NSW Cup side are in the mix. PNG have a side in the Queensland Cup, with hopeful improvement still to come. There are those who don't follow the sport due to heritage players being heavily involved, but you can always tell they will still bleed for this jersey.